in performance: blind boys of alabama

The Blind Boys of Alabama. From left: Joey Williams, Ben Moore, Jimmy Carter, Ricky McKinnie and Paul Beasley.

The sagely jubilance of the Blind Boys of Alabama was placed on full display within the opening minutes of their performance earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Opening with a version of the 1970 Norman Greenbaum rock radio staple “Spirit in the Sky,” the group’s four-man front line sat stoically in matching tan suits and shades. One by one, they stood with only singer Ricky McKennie remaining seated and silent as the song’s sense of Southern fried salvation was conjured. Then, at the midway point, McKennie surrendered to the music by standing and swaying like a sudden convert to a brand of traditional gospel channeled through some very secular electricity. If you came to the theatre with any Monday blues, they were immediately washed away by this inviting blast of Sunday morning soul.

This was pretty much business as usual for the Blind Boys, but that didn’t make the eight songs performed for the WoodSongs taping seem any less striking. As always, it wasn’t just the group’s immovable sense of faith that fueled its sense of scholarly performance fervency, but the agelessly subtle vigor with which they delivered it.

Co-founder Jimmy Carter again personified that attitude. At age 85, he delivered the remarkably candid and autobiographically inclined title song to the Blind Boys’ new “Almost Home” album, a tune fashioned by the great contemporary Southern songsmith Randall Bramblett out of interviews with Carter and the group’s largely retired co-founder Clarence Fountain. It grew out of stark piano accompaniment with a storyline born out personal blues but ignited by faith.

Similarly, the John Leventhal/Marc Cohn composition “God Knows Everything” began with the elder vocal reflections of Ben Moore but eventually wound its way through to the more youthful falsetto of Paul Beasley for a serving of blues-gospel rooted in soulful grace and reserve.

Covers of “People Get Ready,” “Down by the Riverside” (performed as an encore with 15 year old Lexington singer Makayla Brown) and the group’s signature realignment of “Amazing Grace” set to the melody of “House of the Rising Sun” played more to the stylistic sense of adventure that initiated the Blind Boys global following and Grammy-winning popularity back in 2001. But the attitude didn’t blink last night. Carter and company may have basked in gospel’s confident assuredness, but the audience was very much part of the service. There was plenty of glow to go around.

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